Sceptics dream of world without woo-woo

Brian Cox on TVA Blog I wrote back in July 2011 on Prof Brian Cox has upset some of his supporters once again. Author Michael Prescott recently posted a link to my piece and all of a sudden I’ve found myself on the receiving end of comments from people who, for the most part, seem to know as little about the paranormal as the particle physicist himself.

My criticism of Cox at the time was that he was totally dismissive of ghosts. For the record, I don’t know which of the many theories about ghosts or apparitions is closest to the truth, but I do know that enough people have reported their ghostly experiences for most reasonable people to accept that it is a phenomenon worthy of investigation.

I wasn’t planning to return to the subject so soon, but the pin-up boy of astronomy, who pops up on television almost daily, has done it again – this time using his highly entertaining A Night With The Stars lecture, filmed at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and broadcast on BBC2 in December, as an opportunity to dismiss all paranormal phenomena.

Here’s what he had to say in his introduction:

“The best theory we have to describe matter is quantum theory. Now, I understand why quantum theory can seem a bit odd, I mean it makes some odd statements; it says, for example, that things can be in many places at once. In fact, technically, it says that things can be in an infinite number of places at once. It says that the sub-atomic building blocks of our bodies are shifting in response to events that happened at the edge of the known universe, a billion light years somewhere over there.

“Now this is all true but that isn’t a licence to talk utter drivel. You see, quantum theory might seem weird and mysterious but it describes the world with higher precision than the laws of physics laid down by Newton and it’s one of the foundations of our modern understanding of nature. It doesn’t therefore allow mystical healing or ESP or any other manifestation of New-Age woo woo into the pantheon of the possible. Always remember quantum theory is physics and physics is usually done by people without star signs tattooed on their bottom.”

He concluded his lecture by saying: “There is nothing strange; there is nothing weird; there’s no woo woo – it’s just beautiful physics.”

What Cox is overlooking – or deliberately ignoring – is that healing, ESP, ghosts and other so-called “paranormal” phenomena have been investigated by scientists whose qualifications are as good as his and their research may one day lead to these phenomena being better understood and even accepted as normal. Physics may be beautiful, but there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about the workings of the Universe in which we exist. What sceptics regard as “woo-woo” today may prove to have great significance in the future.

It is worth noting that having filled his TV show with demonstrations of how things work, he offered no supporting evidence for his claim that quantum theory “doesn’t allow” ESP and other so-called paranormal phenomena.  A few years ago, I’m sure, Cox would have assured us just as confidently that nothing can travel faster than light. Yet recent experiments seem to point to the fact that neutrinos are able to do precisely that.

The irony is that Cox’s TV lecture began with this quote from 19th century chemist Sir Humphry Davy: “Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science are ultimate; that there are no new mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”

Perhaps Cox could be persuaded to ponder Davy’s wise words and how they might apply to his own thinking before he next steps into the spotlight.

Dr Rupert SheldrakeThe Science DelusionBetter still, he should consider the arguments put forward by Dr Rupert Sheldrake (left) in his new book, The Science Delusion: freeing the spirit of enquiry. I will be reviewing Sheldrake’s book shortly, but it is relevant to this discussion because he examines and challenges the 10 core beliefs of the scientific creed. He then offers an alternative philosophy, built around his theory of morphic resonance.

Sheldrake is a biologist and author whose research into telepathy has attracted a great deal of criticism from sceptics of the paranormal. Not only has he answered their criticisms but he has also said that one critic, Professor Richard Wiseman, has been deliberately deceptive in his reporting of Sheldrake’s research. In an interview last year with Alex Tsakiris on the excellent Skeptiko website/podcast, Sheldrake had this to say:

“Wiseman’s research on psychic pets was entirely parasitic on my research. He portrays himself as this kind of heroic debunking figure who goes in and exposes people who fool themselves about their dogs and so forth.  But, in fact, his own tests show an even bigger effect than I’d observed. Incredibly, he then appeared on TV and made press releases, wrote a scientific paper in a scientific journal, claiming to have refuted the effect we both demonstrated. It is completely outrageous, but as you say, he’s got away with it before. He’s been exposed before, but that seems completely irrelevant to him.”

ParanormalityRichard WisemanSheldrake made those comments after publication of Wiseman’s book, Paranormality: why we see what isn’t there. You’ll find the full details at “Dr Rupert Sheldrake on the persistence of Richard Wiseman’s deception“. The biologist has also pointed out that sceptics are not non-believers; they are believers in a materialist world. Here’s one reflection on their state of mind, delivered in another interview with Alex Tsakiris (“Dr Rupert Sheldrake and the Skeptics“, June 2008):

“These are mainly people who are committed to a kind of militant/atheist worldview. As far as they are concerned, if you allow any psychic phenomena to occur you are leaving a door open a crack and … who knows, within seconds you could have God back again and, even worse, the Pope. So, I think, for them, it’s almost like a kind of religious struggle. It’s like a crusade.”

For those who would like a fuller appraisal of Brian Cox’s TV performance, I recommend atheist and sceptic James Sheils’ “Double Twit Experiment – What Brian Cox Got Wrong“.

In addition to the Comments below, readers may like to view the very lively comments that have appeared on the Blog of American author Michael Prescott after he drew attention to my contribution, as well as the Comments that followed my earlier Blog on Cox.

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